RWANDA IS many things: a human catastrophe, a testament to the danger of ethnic hatred, a devastating symbol of man's inhumanity to man. But beyond all that it is a sign of the New World Disorder: a world in which no great power takes responsibility for preventing a descent into chaos.
When an organized group of militant Hutus began slaughtering Rwanda's Tutsi minority in April, no outside power was prepared to intervene. Pleas by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali got no response.
In the end the human tragedy was so great that the U.S. government has felt compelled to mount an enormous relief effort. It will cost many times what earlier intervention might have, not to mention the cost in Rwandan lives.
There were reasons for the Clinton administration's disinclination to intervene in April or May. Rwanda is remote and outside traditional areas of American interest. Separating the parties in so savage a civil conflict would have been difficult.
But there was plainly another element in the American decision to stay out. That was the now ingrained reluctance to use the armed forces of the United States in any situation where they may suffer casualties.
Edward N. Luttwak, a conservative analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, discusses the new military shyness in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. His article, brief and pungent, is essential reading for both liberals and conservatives.
In Somalia, Mr. Luttwak notes, the death of 18 soldiers -- who presumably went into the military knowing that they might have to risk their lives -- forced a total change in U.S. policy. In Haiti, a handful of thugs on the docks frightened off an American vessel; the impression of U.S. weakness bedevils the Haitian problem to this day.
What we are seeing, Mr. Luttwak argues, is a "refusal to tolerate combat casualties." And the phenomenon is not confined to the United States or other democracies where television images may drive public opinion. The old, totalitarian Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan but then acted with extraordinary timidity -- for fear of public reaction against casualties.
The two recent cases where significant powers risked sizable casualties were the Falklands war and the Persian Gulf war. In the first, Margaret Thatcher's leadership took Britain into a romanticized echo of empire. In the gulf there were real interests, and President Bush effectively mobilized opinion behind the war.
But the gulf war story suggests that we are now willing to risk casualties only for a large and dramatized cause. And that, Mr. Luttwak says, "rules out the most efficient use of force -- early and on a small scale to prevent escalation." He might have been writing, presciently, about Rwanda.
What is the reason for the new sensitivity about possible casualties? Mr. Luttwak's theory is that it reflects the smaller size of families in the developed world. In earlier centuries people had many children, some of whom were expected to die young anyway, so death in battle was more acceptable.
That may be a psychological explanation. But there is a more immediate political one in this country: Vietnam. We fought a war that more and more Americans came to regard as a mistake, costing thousands of lives even after we decided to get out.
Since Vietnam the Pentagon has been hypersensitive about public opinion. Under Gen. Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, it adopted a doctrine that allows the use of American forces only in extremely narrow circumstances. Military leaders have become the biggest resisters to the use of force.
Those of us who came to oppose the Vietnam war naturally applaud the cautiousness of military leaders. But like any doctrine, this one can be overdone. Right now, for example, Zairean officers are demanding payments to let relief planes for Rwandan refugees land. The United States should use its muscle without hesitation to stop such a practice by the corrupt forces of President Mobutu Sese Seko.
The United States is the one remaining superpower. If it cannot use force to prevent disasters, then the world is truly condemned to chaos. And Americans, Mr. Luttwak writes, will have to learn how to be blind -- "to passively ignore avoidable tragedies and horrific atrocities."
Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.